Understanding sex and gender through the category of intersex

In this very special post by guest author Arpita Das (@ms_arpita), sex and gender are discussed from an intersex perspective. Arpita is a PhD researcher at the University of Sydney’s Department of Gender and Cultural Studies studying intersex rights in India. Her research interests include gender, gender-based violence, sexuality, intersex issues, disability and sexuality, young people and sexual and reproductive health and rights, reproductive technologies and biopolitics.


“When I started my postgraduate degree in social work in India many years ago, the world became a new place with the introduction of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Until then they had meant the same thing to me (actually sex also connoted other unmentionable things, therefore gender sounded better). During courses on feminism and learning about the women’s movement, we deconstructed these words and they started having different meanings — sex was something you are born with and was therefore biological, and gender was acquired and therefore social. Becoming a part of the women’s movement in India, this gave me a whole new lens to look at the world. In this way of understanding things, sex could not be changed (or so I thought), while gender could be constantly worked on and unlearned. This idea of gender made me understand that the restrictions that society puts on us as women and young girls, such as how to dress, how to behave, how to talk, how much to laugh (or not), skills of cooking, knitting and caring, are not mandatory and could be challenged.

My world was again going to change when in 2004 I attended the Sexuality Rights Institute organized by TARSHI and CREA and as part of the coursework, read Anne Fausto-Sterling’s seminal articles – The Five Sexes – Why Male and Female are not Enough and The Five Sexes, Revisited. In the first article, the author who is a biologist and a gender development activist, elucidated how the two-sex system was inadequate and did not take into consideration the full spectrum of human sexuality. She discussed the term ‘intersex’ which at the time the article was published in 1993, was used in medical literature to talk about various sub-groups. Fausto-Sterling argued that in addition to male and female, there were three other sexes, namely true hermaphrodites (or herms, who possess one testis and one ovary), male pseudohermaphrodites (or merms, who have testes and some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries), and female pseudohermaphrodites (or ferms, who have ovaries and some aspects of male genitalia but no testes). In the second article, published in 1994, Fausto-Sterling revised her earlier statement to state that “people come in an even wider assortment of sexual identities and characteristics than mere genitals can distinguish” (p.22). These articles and extensive discussions with peers and colleagues at the institute changed the way I understood sex and gender.

Intersex people are also called hermaphrodites, or people with Disorders of Sex Development (DSD). However, the term hermaphrodite is inaccurate as it suggests the possession of fully functioning male and female organs, which according to OII-Australia, is impossible for humans. Usage of terms such as ‘disorder’ or ‘condition’ or ‘abnormality’ is also problematic because it creates a negative connotation based on the assumption that they need to ‘treated’ or ‘corrected’.

Simply put, intersex people are people whose external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosome levels or hormonal levels or different combinations of these do not adhere to a stereotypical male or a female body. According to OII-Australia, intersex people may constitute 0.5-1.7% of the global population. As with many other groups, intersex people is not a homogenous category and presents diversity and variation. While some may be identified at birth, there are others who may go through their entire lives without knowing that they are intersex.

In India, intersex people are often confused with hijras. Although hijras constitute a large umbrella category within South Asia of diverse genders and sexualities, not all hijras are intersex. Additionally, not all intersex people join the hijra community, which is more of a social or cultural identity. In India, there is very little known on intersex people who do not join the hijra community.

Because of the ways in which sex and gender have been constructed as a binary system, with male-female and man-woman as the only two identities that stand in opposition to one another, members of society including families of intersex people as well as medical and health professionals often consider it a favourable option to assign an intersex child as either male or female. This is based on a strict gender attribution and gender assignment system in which the child’s body may be ‘surgically corrected’ to look like either a male or a female. Further, the family members of intersex children often also try to follow the gender assigned to make them conform to traditional gender norms regarding their assigned sex and gender. In many cases medical interventions are conducted on children (and therefore without their consent) which may have life-long effects. Many intersex people suffer physically and/or psychologically due to the long-term impact of such interventions. Additionally, because they are encouraged not to disclose their intersex status, they often experience stigma and shame.

Having worked on gender and sexuality rights for the last 15 years or so, I find the categories of sex and gender constantly shifting. My own understanding of these terms has moved particularly in the context of intersex people. Sex and gender are complicated concepts that are enmeshed in each other. It is difficult to understand one without contextualizing our knowledge of the other.”

We would like to cordially thank Arpita Das for discussion of important issues of sex and gender and sharing her experiences and perspectives of research. If you are intersex and would like support in the UK please contact us and we can put you in touch with a number of organisations specialising in intersex issues.